Today’s post comes from Amit Das, a Thinking Beyond Borders fellow in Thailand. Amit was born and raised in Newton, MA where his parents settled down after moving to the US from India. He is 18 years old and is currently on a Gap Year with Thinking Beyond Borders. Amit’s passion is science, and more specifically medical research. At home, he’s spent the last two summers working at a Stem Cell research laboratory at Children’s Hospital Boston as a research assistant. Amit plans to use the knowledge gained during this year abroad to offer new global perspectives on public health when he goes to Harvard next year, where he plans to study Human Biology. You can follow his gap year blog here.
I watched in horror as our Mu Ga lumped what had to be at least five pounds of rice on the plate between us. “Gi Yu Yu!” she exclaimed. Eat Up! Maybe she saw the consternation on my face, or perhaps she noticed the look of utter bewilderment in my roommate’s widened eyes, but to my stomach’s immense relief she smiled understandingly and said “Mai Pen Rai.” Don’t worry about it. But every meal in Huay Thong Ko would feature a hefty bowl of white rice – a staple of the local diet more integral than even water itself. The villagers will eat three servings of rice a day for an entire lifetime. Yet in only two weeks, I already feel a desire for something, anything different and new. What accounts for this contrast in eating preference? I believe the cause and its implications go much deeper than just food, rather revealing a fundamental difference in cultural and personal prioritization and values.
For the overwhelming majority of the year, the inhabitants of Hue Ton Kaw take to the fields to cultivate and harvest their crops. But the abundance of rice is no guarantee – Karen harvests are successful due to the skill of the men and women who work the fields. Their prowess is the latest iteration of the knowledge that has been passed down for generations, rice is so much more than a food. It is a tradition, a cornerstone of Karen culture. When eating rice, they are not simply feeding their bodies – they are reconnecting with their roots and their heritage. Each grain is a testament to a year’s sweat and labor, the culmination of a cycle of toil that will renew annually without fail as far into the future as they can, or care to see.
In my time here, I’ve come to see that the Karen people do not live for money. Ambition, pride, greed, success still exist here, but manifest foreign from my American rationalization. The Karen “career” is to support their families’ lives at the most fundamental natural level. Their currency is the crop, their salary sustenance, their economy the environment, and their purpose life itself.
If tomorrow global markets crashed and the systems that silently run the infrastructure of international trade shut down, the Karen people could live on forever, reliant on the agricultural sensibility that has sustained and nurtured their culture, their language, and their children for generations. I cannot say the same for the people, places, and practices that comprise what I call home.
No matter how I spin it to myself and others, my life’s ambition comes down to the acquisition of money. Not because I am obsessed with the possession of monetary and material wealth. I want to be a doctor, to save peoples’ lives. I want a family, to be a loving husband and a supportive father. These are dreams equal in conviction to the ambitions of Karen villagers, but the means by which we would pursue them are vastly different. Becoming a doctor is a financial investment and having a family is expensive. Beyond that, I see an even deeper dichotomy between our cultures. The American relationship with food reveals just as much about us as the Karen rice. Food selection is made on whim, we eat whatever we “feel like eating” that day. Compared to the villagers’ personal connection to rice, how distant and detached our choices seem. There is no consideration for the story of our food; it is simply a commodity, a temporary alleviation of hunger that feeds our sensory desires.
Disconnected. We are disconnected at so many levels from our most basic needs. Money is the anti-catalyst that sets us apart from the villagers. We seek a career, a method to acquire the lifeblood of our system. With our money we buy food, grown in factory farms with no bother for its history. With our money we buy our houses made of wood from unknown, long forgotten forests. With our money we pay our utilities, so that far away plants and reservoirs will continue to pump electricity, clean water, and heat into our homes. With our money we pay our taxes, to buy our membership into the system we so desperately need to keep letting us spend our money.
To a Karen this compromise is fundamentally unacceptable. Not in money, intellect, possessions, or even language, but in their deliberate, intimate relationship with every minute detail of their lives, and our voluntary ignorance of everything we can just buy with money. It is so easy to praise these people for their sincerity without ever having joined them on the sun-scorched hills of their rotational farm land, breaking my back for a reward almost non-existent compared to the instant gratification of my upbringing.
Would I choose to live in this village? The truth is, I don’t know if I would. I see its beauty and sustainability, but the dreams I hold so strongly for my future that they have become part of who I am are too reliant on the system that I’ve known from birth. But perhaps with this experience and the lessons I’ve learned, I can function at home with more awareness, and find a relationship with the aspects of living I previously thought insignificant.